Taking the bus brings voyages of discovery

If I had done this a year ago, everybody would have thought I was a loser. Now they think I'm cool for being "green."

Okay, so maybe they actually think I'm a loser, but what they tell me is that I'm cool for being green. And that's made my decision to go carless and rely on Tampa's bus system a lot easier.

But to my boundless surprise, I love being a bus guy. Love it. I'm saving a ton of money. I'm getting almost everywhere pretty efficiently. And I'm not polluting the air (or, as we now call it, "emitting greenhouse gases").

The reason I'm surprised is that I've lived in Tampa since 1970 and, until a couple of months ago, I had never taken a HART bus. I assumed buses were unreliable and unpleasant.

The weird thing is, I had always considered myself to be pro mass transit, complaining that Tampa's inadequate system kept us from becoming a great city. I voted for local candidates who said they'd push for better bus service.

But when it came to actually taking the bus, I'd tell myself, "Well, maybe tomorrow."

That all changed a couple of months ago when my car broke down at about the same time my insurance expired. I'm a freelance writer — a shaky way to make a living — and business hasn't been great lately, so I had to postpone getting my car roadworthy.

My first bus excursion was to Cypress Street and West Shore Boulevard. I looked on the HART Web site and figured out that the bus that stops near my house in Sulphur Springs would take me downtown. After a 10-minute wait, I could catch the bus to where I was going.

It worked out better than I had hoped. The buses were both on time, and when I reached my destination, the bus stop was just a few steps from the front door of the building — closer, in fact, than the garage where I would have parked.

It only cost $3.25, round-trip. Soon, I graduated to the monthly pass, $50 for unlimited rides. A buck and a half or so a day.

I go to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center a lot, and I used to pay between $5 and $10 just to park. The bus gets me within a few blocks, virtually for free since I have the monthly pass anyway.

The buses are almost always on time, they're clean and comfortable and the people are friendly. I get a lot of reading and even some work done on the bus and at the stop.

Other benefits I never anticipated. It feels great when I can devise some creative, circuitous route to a remote corner of town. And I love the feeling I get when I've gotten to the stop a little late, wonder if I've missed my ride, then suddenly see the nose of the bus peek around the corner.

I'm discovering little elements of Tampa that I've always missed, even along streets I've frequented for the past 38 years.

When I drove, I focused on the road ahead. Now I can look around. I'm noticing little parks, cool architectural details and even small buildings that I've never really seen before.

While walking from the Marion Street transfer station to the performing arts center a few weeks ago, I came across a wonderful art gallery that I never knew about.

I'm also meeting my neighbors because I walk past their houses on the way to the stop. One woman yells "Hey, Big Man!" every time I walk by. The other night, as she and her family ate dinner in their yard, I told her it smelled great. She insisted I take a plate of chicken and collards home. Another woman has a 3-year-old son who loves to draw on the driveway with colored chalk. Every day now he invites me to look at his latest artwork.

Sure, there are disadvantages. I can't leave the house exactly when I choose and sometimes I have to wait 15 or 20 minutes at a stop.

That's fine with me. My schedule is more flexible than most. And as long I have a book, I don't mind waiting. I'm also okay with walking a couple of miles every now and then.

Occasionally, I'm running late and have to call a cab. But I now have a regular cab driver who cuts me a break on the fare.

It's not for everybody, but it's great for me.

For the first couple of weeks, I missed my car horribly — now I don't even think about it.

I'll get it fixed one of these days and likely I'll find myself driving everywhere again, just because it's a tiny bit easier.

But really, I think I'll miss the bus then more than I miss my car now.

Taking the bus brings voyages of discovery 10/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 6, 2008 1:55pm]

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